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Senators in Space, WEDNESDAY, 12 JULY 2017 - Radio Interview with Senator Eric Abetz, ABC Radio Hobart 'Mornings with Leon Compton'




LEON COMPTON: It is time to go to a place in which there is no political spin, where there is perhaps less political spin and maybe a little bit more Unpublishdiscussion about some of the issues that face the country, the world and the state at the moment.

Senator Eric Abetz, for the Liberal Party, good morning to you and nice to see you again. 


COMPTON: Senator Lisa Singh, for the Labor Party, nice to see you again.


COMPTON: Let's start by finding the sensible centre in Australian political life at the moment. Our Prime Minister talked about it the other day. It’s a term that's been used for a long period of time in Australian political life. Senator Abetz, let's start with you. Where is the "centre", the "sensible centre" in Australian politics and why does it matter?

ABETZ: I think the sensible centre is important because that is where you will find most of the Australian population. That is where...what are their aspirations, what do they want government to deliver, what do they want for themselves? So I think that is where any democracy has to try to position itself. Now what is the sensible centre? I think that first and foremost the Australian people want a government that is focused on jobs, on people being able to manage their household budgets – in other words, try and keep power prices down as much as possible, keep the cost of living down as much as possible – housing affordability. Those issues that do exercise the minds of our fellow Australians on a day-to-day basis. And so I think they're the issues that people focus when you stand shopping centres or at Agfest, wherever, they're the issues that people talk about, and that is what any government worthy of the trust of the Australian people has to focus on.

COMPTON: Can I ask you to talk to each other maybe about the sensible centre?


ABETZ: Yes, of course.

COMPTON: Do you think, Lisa Singh, and the Senator, would agree on where that place might be?

SINGH: I actually think that Eric's "sensible centre" is probably completely different to mine, to be honest. And this goes to the heart of what we mean by "sensible centre" or "the centre". I think it is quite subjective. There might be some kind of general descriptions that people think of what the centre means and Eric you've just gone through some of them – access to employment, decent housing, healthcare, those types of things. 

But I don't know, Eric. I don't see you as someone who subscribes to the centre so much, rather than the conservative side of politics. I notice you've come out in support of Malcolm Turnbull's speech that he gave in Britain. I don't know why Malcolm Turnbull went to Britain and gave that speech to be honest. It seemed like something he probably needs to talk about here to Australia rather than Britain. I was surprised that you supported Malcolm's speech in that way, because I see you as someone more to the right – the hard right – of the Liberal Party rather than the small "Ls". So therefore not someone aspiring to the sensible centre. For me, I'm obviously seen as someone more to the left of politics, but at the same time I do aspire to the sensible centre. I think the thing that both Eric and I probably would agree on is that despite our differences of how we see politics – be it to the left or to the right – what we want at the end of the day is the same kinds of services delivered for people that help them in their lives, and they will only be achieved if we do move to the centre, though we may get there different ways.

ABETZ: Well look Lisa, you've gratuitously described me as from the "Hard Right", allow me then to gratuitously to describe you as from the "Hard Left". Does that assist us or the Tasmanian people? I don't think so. I would like people to judge us on the merits on the policy positions that we put forward, and that is why – when I read the newspaper articles yesterday about Malcolm Turnbull's speech in London – and might I quickly say when you are invited to give the keynote address to the Disraeli Forum, who was the founder of the Conservatives in the United Kingdom, then that is something that of course one should accept, put Australia on the world stage and amongst the – if you like – conservative slash liberal parties around the world. That was a right and proper thing to do for the Prime Minister. 

Now having said that, when I saw the headlines I thought, 'This is pretty provocative’ but as I always do with – if I might say Leon and Lisa – with crisis 101 is: establish the facts. So I went to the actual speech that the Prime Minister delivered and I thought that it was quite unremarkable. He did talk about the conservative and liberal strands, and if you go through the seventeen principles enunciated by Robert Menzies in the foundation of the Liberal Party – in the document we believe – it is absolutely rich and threaded throughout with conservative strands and liberal strands.

COMPTON: Is there, has there been an issue in Australian political life over the past couple of decades where there's been on one side – your side of politics Senator Abetz – perhaps an increasing focus on corporatisation? On thinking of Australia as an economy rather than a society? And Lisa on your side – of an excessive focus, through the power of unions – on the issues that are important to them? Would you agree together that perhaps the "sensible centre" has been left and that's one of the reasons that there is a significant disquiet, evidentially from the votes, in both of your parties?

ABETZ: Leon, I think you've hit on a very important point. There is the temptation of any political party to seek to get key stakeholder groups onside, and peak bodies onside, who are sometimes disconnected from their membership. I recall once, during the Howard government, a particular key organisation was telling us – I'll tell you it was the wine equalisation tax where the Wine Federation told us what to do and some of us had concerns about the small wine producers and we were told, "No, no, no, the Wine Federation has told us this is the way you ought to introduce the GST etc," only to find out that they were hugely unrepresentative of the membership – the small membership – and that is where I think the Labor Party as well, with the unions now with only fourteen, fifteen per cent of the workforce in unions, the Labor Party needs to listen to the grassroots worker more so than union officials. And the test for us in the Liberal Party is not to necessarily listen to the executive of the, at this time, the Wine Federation of Australia but to the actual grassroots membership. And that is why this winter break is such a wonderful opportunity for parliamentarians – if they so desire – to go out and about and talk to individuals within the community and find out what they're actually thinking, what their issues are, and how we can assist them.

SINGH: I think talking about the centre actually breaks down this polarisation of politics. Which I think people are sick of. And that is the conservatives who are against climate change, and marriage equality and those things that people actually want action on. But at the same time, if you look globally you've had Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn – both from the left of politics – really speak to massive amounts of voters about things that they really care about – access to affordable education, housing, job security, these are the kind of bread and butter issues that people care about. If they are on the left side of politics so be it. But I think we need to move them into mainstream politics and not continue this polarisation of politics because that's what people get so bored by and sick of. They actually want their government to represent them. All we've seen for a long-time Eric, over the last few years on issues like renewable energy, climate change, marriage equality – they're just a couple of issues – is this inertia in the government because of the differences, the stark differences, between the conservatives and the small "L" libs. 

ABETZ: Oh Lisa, you're back to your talking points, with respect.

SINGH: No, they're not talking points Eric, they're facts! 

ABETZ: Lisa, South Australia had its blackout because of an ideological commitment by that state government to renewable energy without any consideration to the actual engineering and other needs to have a sustainable power supply. That is why-

SINGH: That's not the case, Eric. 

ABETZ: It is absolutely the case.

SINGH: No, it's not.

ABETZ: South Australia today boasts, sadly, the highest domestic prices – chances are anywhere in the world – because of the manic pursuit of a renewable target which was unsustainable. And that is where you need a "sensible centre" which says-

SINGH: That sounds like talking points!

COMPTON: But Senator, a response to that from a different conversation might be that that has been generated because of a lack of investment certainty for the enormous companies that would be responsible for providing the solutions, except that out major political parties keep fighting about the investment environment and changing the goalposts at significant rates. Both sides of politics, and that is where the issue lies, but-

ABETZ: No it's not, but you want to move on? We will move on.

COMPTON: I will move on. How does the salmon industry in Tasmania avoid becoming the next forestry?

ABETZ: Oh look, the Australian Greens – well, they demonised the hydro-electric commission for I don't know how long, they then demonised forestry, and they then – and with the hydro-electric commission they demonise an individual such as the commissioner – then with forestry they demonise John Gay. Now with the salmon industry they are seeking to demonise it and they are targeting individuals.

COMPTON: Okay, let's accept that that is happening for a moment. What does the salmon industry do from here, given where we are at? It is on a trajectory at the moment of real scrutiny, there are reasons it should be scrutinised. What is your advice, together, about the direction- 

ABETZ: There needs to be scrutiny, there is no doubt about that, and I think that which occurred in Macquarie Harbour in particular, has not been a good look for the sector, and they do need to clean up their act in relation to Macquarie Harbour. But look, this is a sector that provides gainful employment to literally thousands of our fellow Tasmanians, so let’s not destroy another industry, another sector, which is providing gainful employment and-

COMPTON: But what should we do?

SINGH: But no one wants the salmon industry destroyed. I mean salmon is part of our brand as a state and we are all proud of the salmon that's produced in this state and the jobs it provides, but it does need to be a sustainable industry and that comes down to government regulations. And I do think the government's got a role to play – the State Government I'm talking about here – in uniting the community around their concerns. If they've got legitimate concerns, then the government needs to take those on board, it can't just ignore them. And it needs to ensure that the regulations it has in place are top-notch, and that people can trust them and rely on them so that those issues – whatever they may be within the industry – are dealt with sensitively and sustainably. I think we are both on the same page here Eric, we want this industry to survive and to grow and to prosper for our state. It is so crucial to our brand and to jobs and we all love eating salmon, but at the same time it's got to stack up as far as what the government regulation process is, and there's a lack of leadership there at the moment, I'm afraid.

COMPTON: So you think more leadership in terms of the regulation space? You would, it seems, agree with that?

ABETZ: Well, I think the Government is going down the right path in relation to the exclusion zones that they have just announced in relation to the East Coast. I think there has to be appropriate community consultation, and to ensure that you bring the community along with you and so Lisa is right in that regard, but some of the stickers I see which say, for example, ‘no fish farms,’ do the people really say they don't want any fish farms? And it's this sort of very dogmatic ideological approach, especially from the Australian Greens that says, ‘nah, no fish farms,’ rather than a sticker that might say, ‘sustainable fish farming,’ which would actually be, I think, a unifying sticker, because I think everybody would agree with that. But to simply say ‘no fish farming,’ it's like, ‘no dams,’ like, ‘no forestry.’ It is always the negativity by a lot of people who have a very privileged position in society, and we as a community should have thought, for those that do find their livelihood in the productive sectors of our economy, such as mining, such as forestry, such as farming, and on this one, fish farming.

COMPTON: On mornings around Tasmania, Senator Eric Abetz, Senator Lisa Singh, our guests this morning. They're our "Senators in Space". Is there no spin in space? You be the judge. On the subject of Nick Greiner's comments in Radio National yesterday morning, ‘Party membership,’ he said, ‘is meagre on both sides,’ he meant Labor and Liberal-

SINGH: I don't think that's correct, to be honest, I heard him.

COMPTON: He said, quote: ‘Party membership is meagre on both sides, and not representative of the broader community.’ And then he was pointing the finger at his own party, ‘we need to improve the way we select candidates and boost the numbers of women,’ and he identified- he says, ‘I think the Liberal Party has a problem with women and haven't done as well as our political opponents in terms of gender diversity, and indeed diversity generally.’

SINGH: Well I think he is correct on that front. I mean the Liberal party certainly does have a problem with women. In fact I think the Liberal party went backwards at the election and now- 

ABETZ: Because we lost seats, and that is always understandable when these things happen.

SINGH: There are less Liberal female members in the House of Reps than there are Labor frontbench women. That's how bad it is in the Liberal Party at the moment.

COMPTON: Given that both of you would agree that ideally there are more women in Australia's parliament would be a better thing for everybody, whatever your political persuasion. What ways should you be thinking about improving that?

ABETZ: Look, as somebody that was mentored by the late Senator Shirley Walters, who was the first Tasmanian female senator for Tasmania, she was a trail blazer in that regard. She said she only wanted the position, not because of her sex, but because of merit, and that was the basis on which she was endorsed and had a very successful 18 year career.

SINGH: So Eric are you saying there are no women with merit in the Liberal Party?

ABETZ: The Liberal Party has to attract more women of merit and those that know my involvement, I've been very supportive of – down south for example – Vanessa Goodwin, Jacquie Petrusma, and Elise Archer, and so that is a task for us. In relation to the membership, I would simply say to Nick Greiner that his home state of New South Wales has to get with the game of allowing the membership a genuine say in the endorsement process, and that is to open it up to all the members. I introduced those reforms as State President in Tasmania some 25 years ago – a plebiscite where people in every electorate, if they have been a member for more than one year, have a right to vote to select who our parliamentary candidates will be. That is something that has not been allowed in New South Wales because of certain elements controlling it and that has let down the Liberal Party, both in the state and nationally in New South Wales

COMPTON: The time flies with these things, we've only got four minutes to go, but just in a few words, Senator, would you agree that you have to preselect a female senator for Tasmania in the next election in a winnable spot? I mean it's not feasible in 2017 to keep having winning tickets that are all male, is it?

ABETZ: Oh look, we had Sally Chandler and Sarah Courtney on our senate ticket two elections ago. Sarah Courtney is now a Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier. Do we have a challenge in that area? Absolutely, and we now have Claire Chandler, a former Federal President of the Young Liberal movement in this state, sitting on some of these committees of the Liberal Party to seek to ensure that we get more women at the Federal level. And of course we did have Amanda-Sue Markham in Franklin, who sadly did not win that seat at the last election.

COMPTON: Let's bring our issues from home, sort of our desert island disc but in space. Lisa Singh, what did you want to talk about this morning, briefly?

SINGH: I wanted to mention that next week the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Law Enforcement – it's a federal parliamentary committee – has been doing work into human trafficking in Australia, and it's going to hand down its report. This is something that people probably think doesn't happen here in Australia, when in fact there are actually thousands of people that are living in slavery-like conditions in our own country. Be it in forced labour, sexual servitude, could be forced marriage, and so the key recommendations in this report – which I can't reveal today – but will be hand down next week on the 18th, is a space to watch and to look at how we as legislators can actually do something about modern slavery and human trafficking in this country.

ABETZ: Lisa and I both serve on that particular committee. It is an untold evil that has been under wraps for too long. Needs to be exposed and needs to be fought at every level. So an absolute unity ticket here between Lisa and myself.

COMPTON: And you're saying though that there are responses that we can make to what you've found that will really stop, reduce or stop, this happening in many cases?

SINGH: Absolutely. The UK, France, Canada, a lot of countries now have introduced in the last couple of years a Modern Slavery Act that actually requires businesses, for example, to look at slavery in their supply chains and actually report. They've introduced an anti-slavery or trafficking commissioner, so there are things that we can do at the federal level to stamp out slavery and human trafficking.

COMPTON: And Senator, you wanted to give a props to an initiative involving Crime Stoppers?

ABETZ:  Yeah, yesterday I had the honour of launching a partnership between Crime Stoppers and Tasmanian Spring Water at Burnie. This is a partnership where Crime Stoppers will be able to have their logo and telephone number on every bottle that Tasmanian Spring Water will be putting on the market and also the little boxes of water that they'll be selling. So this is a wonderful partnership showing corporate citizenry and the volunteer sector working together, and so Crime Stoppers is hoping to increase its footprint, especially on the North West Coast where this business is, but also to remind the Tasmanian people every time they drink one of these bottles of water of the importance of Crime Stoppers in protecting our community, so I just wanted to congratulate Crime Stoppers and the company on that great initiative.

COMPTON: To both of you, thanks for coming in this morning. It is time to re-enter the atmosphere with Linda Hunt guiding us in in the newsroom, talk to you hopefully, not a couple of weeks from now, I think Parliament might be back, but on the other side of all that. To both of you, thanks for your time.